I’m not surprised that Kamala Harris has dropped out of the presidential race. Sinking poll numbers, dwindling finances. That can only mean a death spiral for a campaign. But I’m deeply disappointed. Other people have left the race and I’ve thought, “Wait — they were still in?” But poll numbers aside, Harris was a candidate with a unique presence. And how exhilarating to see a smart, accomplished, powerful senator who is also a black woman running for president. Why has it even taken this long?
And for a minute there, she was on fire. There she was, onstage for the second debate, amid a bickering, cross-talking crowd of candidates, when she shushed the stage with the line, “Hey, guys, you know what? America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.” The audience erupted in applause, and the next night her crack earned an admiring “Damn....” from late-night talk show host Seth Meyers, one of the most clever and insightful political commentators on television. It was exciting to see her rise above the crowd. And I loved that she flustered the avuncular, overly confident Joe Biden by reminding him of his opposition to court-ordered busing and that she made the whole country take a week to revisit segregation in schools then — and, unfortunately, now.
Political pundits I know who grade the performances of presidential candidates on whether they laid out their cases like rigid geometry proofs scoffed that she did a bad job that night, yet her poll numbers skyrocketed. I loved that, too. She quickly nailed the ultimate honor: She became a character in a “Saturday Night Live” skit, portrayed by Maya Rudolph.
Who wouldn’t have loved to see Harris debating Trump? She is fierce and smart and knows how to put older male rivals in their places. That would have been fun to watch.
But she couldn’t maintain that momentum in the debates that followed. She was terrific on some things (abortion rights, for example) but alarmingly fuzzy on other issues. Her polls numbers — and her performances — plummeted in a spectacularly awful descent.
I read the devastating report in the New York Times about her inability to pick a message and stay with it, about her failure to ride herd over her warring campaign heads (one of whom was her sister, Maya, a civil rights attorney and former advisor on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign), about firing people who had just moved for the campaign. We all know presidential campaigns are brutal, but this one seemed primed to self-destruct. It was annoying to see Harris not take better control of it.
Still, I think, how is she out and Tulsi Gabbard and Marianne Williamson and Tom Steyer are still in? Ok, Steyer has endless money. For all of them, the sheer visibility alone is enough. If their campaigns crash and burn, so be it. Harris needed to cut her losses before she went from a front-runner to a joke. And she really needed to get out before the late December deadline to be included on the California primary ballot. If she had gotten crushed in her own state, that would have been humiliating.
Now, the question is how she will retool her image. Depending on who is slated to get the nomination, she could be a vice presidential candidate. And she’s still a sitting senator from California. Let’s see if the lessons she’s learned on the campaign trail help her on that Capitol Hill stage.